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NEWS ANALYSIS

China using economic muscle to bend Western companies to its will

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Worker removing a banner for an NBA exhibition match in China between the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers from a building in Shanghai. Beijing's latest move pins corporate officials between making money and loyalty to open societies that nurture their businesses.

New York

LONG before Daryl Morey's fateful tweet - the one that set the NBA on a collision course with China - the country already had a history of employing economic might to twist corporate arms in Asia.

In 2012, Japanese automakers saw Chinese orders sink during a land dispute. Two years ago, an impasse with South Korea led to the closing of Korean-owned stores and Chinese media encouraging a boycott of Hyundai Motor. Two months ago, Beijing effectively barred Cathay Pacific employees who participated in Hong Kong protests from flying into China.

For Western companies, the latest incident began on Oct 4 thanks to Mr Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets. He tweeted a slogan supporting Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement days before National Basketball Association pre-season games in China. The country retaliated by cancelling broadcasts, and Chinese sponsors instantly disappeared.

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It was one of China's most aggressive efforts yet to bend a Western company to its will, and it pins corporate officials between the imperative of profits and loyalty to open societies that nurture their businesses.

"This skirmish between American capitalism and the China model is only going to increase in the future," said John Paul Rollert, who teaches ethics at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. "How American companies deal with it now will suggest how likely China is to give in on these matters or change the value system of American companies."

After years of declining public trust, US businesses have been trying to prove that their values extend beyond the bottom line. In August, the Business Roundtable, one of the country's most influential lobbying groups, abandoned a long-held view that shareholders' interests should come before all else.

China will be a big test of whether that's mere talk. For companies including Nike and Starbucks, the country is a crucial market that is only growing in importance. And the attention paid to China's behaviour probably will increase as US politicians rail against its rising power and human-rights abuses.

China's punishment of offending foreign entities "isn't new, but the speed and ferocity of the responses has grown", said Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.

Opportunities for international incidents are increasing. The US alone conducted about US$737.1 billion in trade with China last year, according to federal figures, and President Donald Trump has been pursuing a bitter trade war for more than a year.

The Internet has allowed almost anyone - government officials, corporate officers, backroom worker bees - to send out potentially offensive messages.

That's a chancy environment for entities such as the NBA, Nike or movie studios, which are lashed to entertainers and athletes who like to speak out online.

The NBA has deep ties to China, striking a TV deal in the late-1980s and now claiming that 500 million people there watch its programming. The Rockets gained traction thanks to former player Yao Ming, a 7-foot-6 (2.3-metre) star who now heads the Chinese Basketball Association.

From China's perspective, it's hard to imagine worse timing for Mr Morey's tweet.

Last week, the nation celebrated 70 years of Communist rule. There was a massive military parade. President Xi Jinping promised to continue China's greatness. Meanwhile a series of marches in Hong Kong protesting against an extradition bill has escalated into massive demonstrations, some 1,500 arrests and the police shooting of a protester.

Mr Morey swiftly deleted his tweet and apologised, but the damage was done.

Chinese-owned companies quickly distanced themselves from the NBA. Sponsors including China's largest sportswear maker, the second-biggest dairy business, a smartphone brand and a local joint venture of Nissan Motor all pulled out.

State television CCTV and tech giant Tencent Holdings said Oct 8 they wouldn't show the preseason games.

The Brooklyn Nets - recently bought by Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai - and the Los Angeles Lakers were to play in Shanghai on Thursday and in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, on Oct 12. Posters advertising them were taken down.

The swift response showed China's sensitivity to the way it is portrayed in the West, particularly its territorial claims to Tibet, Taiwan and semi-autonomous Hong Kong.

"They are upset that others don't show them the respect they think they deserve," said Mr Kennedy, who has studied China for three decades.

Just asking a CEO about the situation can be fraught. When asked on Tuesday how Levi Strauss & Co is thinking about balancing its interests in Hong Kong, Chip Bergh skirted the question. "I don't really want to get dragged into a political comment here," Mr Bergh said, laughing nervously.

"We're just going to continue to stay on top of the situation in Hong Kong and keep our employees safe, keep our customers safe and if that means we have to close stores, we will close stores."

That's a situational tactic for the protests in the streets but not a coherent strategy as China wields its economic might. BLOOMBERG